In a development that has been brewing for some time, former Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada and his former Chief of Staff, Cade Cothren, were both arrested by FBI agents at their homes at 7 a.m. last Tuesday morning.  The arrests come in the wake of a 20-count federal indictment charging the two with conspiracy to commit the crimes of theft, wire fraud, bribery/kickbacks, and money laundering. If convicted, the charges carry maximum sentences of 20 years in prison.  Both Casada and Cothren appeared in court following their arrests, where they pled “not guilty,” and in a comment to the media Casada’s attorney promised to mount “a vigorous defense” to the charges.  They were released from custody on Tuesday.

The arrests mark the latest development in the FBI’s ongoing investigation of a shadowy political consulting firm, Phoenix Solutions, which is alleged to have been secretly operated by Cothren and Casada. The FBI raided the offices and homes of a handful of Republican lawmakers and staff in January, 2021, as part of an investigation into the laundering of campaign finance money toward Phoenix, which was originally established to offer services to legislators facing primary challenges and was later expanded to act as a mail vendor for the General Assembly.   Then in March of this year, former House Insurance Committee Chair Robin Smith (R-Hixson) resigned from the legislature a day before pleading guilty to a federal wire fraud charge for her role in the scheme.  Federal prosecutors alleged that Smith, Casada and Cothren had schemed to set up and run Phoenix, with Cothren running the firm and operating under a false identity of “Matthew Phoenix.”  Smith admitted her guilt and pledged to cooperate fully as a witness for the federal government.  

Casada decided not to run for reelection this year, instead opting to run for county clerk in his home county, Williamson County. He lost that race by a landslide.

After first being elected to the legislature in 2001, the ambitious Casada quickly rose through the leadership ranks.  He was elected House Republican Caucus Chairman in 2004, and went about aggressively fundraising and recruiting Republican candidates for office.  He is credited for leading the GOP’s strategy that in 2008 helped it gain a majority in the House for the first time since Reconstruction.  He followed that up by leading the efforts in 2010 to help the GOP obtain the supermajority that it still enjoys today.  Casada ascended to the role of House Majority Leader in 2017, and two years later seized the opportunity to run for Speaker when Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) stepped down to run for Governor. 

During the 2019 session, Casada quickly embraced the full power of the Speaker’s role.  Among other things, he kept the vote for the school voucher bill open for 40 minutes as he worked to break a deadlock and ensure the bill’s passage.  He also stripped certain members of leadership positions, and was accused of deploying staff members as “hall monitors,” acting as his eyes and ears in legislative hallways.  By the last week of the 2019 session, Casada looked to be on the path to become one of the most powerful Speakers in Tennessee history, but was blindsided on the final day of session by a news story that alleged he had participated in a text message thread with Cothren that had contained both sexist and racist messaging.  That was followed by a story alleging that Cothren had engaged in the use of illegal drugs.  The onslaught of negative press continued on a frequent basis until July of that year when the House Republican Caucus delivered an overwhelming vote of “no confidence.” Casada resigned the next month, and he was replaced in the role by Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville).   Casada spent the next three sessions relegated to back bencher status, and for the last 19 months has been hounded by allegations of impropriety stemming from the FBI raid in January of 2021.  With Tuesday’s arrest, it effectively punctuates one of the more stunning downfalls in Tennessee political history.

Speaker Sexton released the following statement:

“In Tennessee, we will not tolerate public corruption, defrauding the state, or bribery at any level. I commend the Federal Bureau of Investigation for its hard work, diligence, and dedication that resulted in [Tuesday] morning’s arrests. 

As I have previously stated on several occasions, shortly after becoming Speaker in 2019, I began assisting the federal authorities during and throughout the investigation — including leading up to today’s indictments, and I will continue to do so if a trial is needed.  

Together, our legislative body has stood strong over the past two years to take significant actions during this investigation by passing laws to strengthen campaign finance regulations and new ethics laws for elected officials and staff. 

Today is a good day for Tennesseans because we did not turn a blind eye to these criminal activities.”